As Tropical Storm Isaac shoulders its way into the Gulf of Mexico, where it likely will become a full-blown hurricane, organizers of the Republican National Convention in Tampa have delayed the event but stand firm on holding a preconvention welcoming party in St. Petersburg tonight.
On Saturday, the approach of the storm — still 700 miles from Tampa — led RNC officials to decide to convene on Monday then immediately recess until Tuesday, opting to join the rest of Florida in watching which way the storm heads once it gets into the Gulf.
But local organizers did not back down on throwing tonight's welcoming party.
"The focus of this event has always been about promoting Tampa Bay by welcoming the delegates, media and guests to our area for the Republican National Convention," Tampa Bay Host Committee President Ken Jones said in a statement released Saturday night.
The biggest threat from the storm is not wind or rain but storm surge, and that could disrupt the convention, which is on the waterfront in downtown Tampa.
The convention is scheduled to take place in the The Forum and the Tampa Convention Center, both of which have the northern reaches of Hillsborough Bay lapping at their seawalls. A high tide with storm surge could flood some coastal areas, but probably not those two complexes, officials said.
"Our elevation is approximately 10 feet, with stairs, curbs, and walkways another foot above that," said Rick Hamilton, executive director of the city-owned convention center.
Still, he said, on Saturday afternoon workers began filling sandbags to raise the protection level to 15 feet above mean sea level.
"The bags are being stockpiled and will be put in place (today) if the storm turns in our direction," he said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn echoed the comments made by other officials earlier in the day with a statement released just after 9 p.m. Saturday:
"The safety and welfare of residents along with the thousands of delegates and visitors in Tampa this week continues to be our first priority," the mayor said. "Convention organizers have been our partners in that effort since day one. Their decision tonight out of an abundance of caution is in the best interest of the safety and welfare of everyone. …
"Hosting the 2012 Republican National Convention is an honor," Buckhorn said, "and I am looking forward to a great week of activities. By the end of the week, all of our visitors will have plenty of time to know that Tampa is a great place."
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service predict Isaac likely will push a storm surge of no more than 5 feet, which is 6 inches more than the storm surge generated by Tropical Storm Debby in July.
By late Saturday afternoon, forecasters said Isaac would plow into the Gulf and churn toward the Florida Panhandle, brushing Tampa with possible 30-35 mph sustained winds and rain. Five to 8 inches of rain is expected during the next few days, an amount that could flood low-lying areas.
Richard Rude, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin, said a tropical storm watch is in effect for the Tampa region, "and it undoubtedly will continue Sunday through Monday."
Today will start out partly sunny, Rude said, but the chance of rain steadily rises to 70 percent later in the day. Wind is expected to increase steadily as well, and by the end of today winds could gust up to 45 mph.
On Monday, tropical storm conditions will continue, he said, with showers, isolated thunderstorms and gusting winds. It will be wet. Chance of rain: 70 percent.
Rude said the big threats from the storm are surge and heavy rain. "It's not a big storm," he said, "but it does have quite a bit of clouds and showers from the center. On Tuesday, it will be kind of ending" for the Tampa region.
He said it was too early to predict exact storm surge levels.
"It depends on if the storm gets off the coast," he said. Figuring the exact level of surge also depends on tides, he said. "Right now, we're kind of looking at 5 feet above mean sea level."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Saturday.
"That's standard protocol to make sure we can coordinate our efforts with federal, state and local [officials], so we can have the proper response," he said.
The governor was scheduled to speak at the convention. On Saturday he canceled his appearance, "so that I can respond to storm-related matters," he said.
The Tampa area on Saturday began to brace for the storm.
Schools will be closed Monday in Sarasota and Manatee counties, where conditions might be worse than in Pinellas and Hillsborough. Sandbags were available in just about every West Central Florida county. And emergency operations centers were activated, including one in Tampa.
Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Preston Cook partially activated the county's operations center. "We are in the right posture for being ready to go if this storm does something weird," he said.
Cook said emergency officials are watching National Hurricane Center advisories and talking with the National Weather Service and emergency coordinators.
"So far there are no plans for evacuations," he said. "That could change, but probably not today."
Storm surge is the main concern, he said.
"They have predicted 3 to 5 feet," Cook said. "Tropical Storm Debby was 4 1/2 feet, and this storm will be in and out quicker."
St. Petersburg, which is hosting the preconvention party at Tropicana Field tonight, opened its emergency operations center early Saturday morning and it is expected to remain open into the early part of the week.
RNC officials admit they are in uncharted waters. It is the first time a convention has been directly threatened by weather.
"This is definitely a unique situation," said Kyle Downey, spokesman for the RNC Committee on Arrangements.
MacDill Air Force Base sent 13 planes north, according to 6th Air Mobility Wing spokeswoman Capt. Regina Gillis. Ten KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling tankers and three C-37s flew out of MacDill on Saturday.
There is no time set for the aircraft to return, Gillis said, adding that the base, with miles of shoreline, is taking precautions to deal with the storm.
The U.S. Coast Guard issued an order that virtually shut down the Port of Tampa.
"No vessels will be allowed to move into or out of the Port of Tampa," said a news re-lease from the Tampa Port Authority. "There will be no exceptions, including cruise vessels, unless there is a significant change in the storm path or intensity."
The tropical storm swept over Cuba on Saturday.
In Florida, officials urged tourists to leave the Keys on Saturday as the hurricane center issued a hurricane warning from there north to Bonita Beach, north of Naples.